Taking Care of Air Force, DoD Families in Katrina's Wake
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala., Sept. 10, 2005 "I have U.S. Air Force on my uniform, he has U.S. Air Force on his. That's enough for me," said Col. Scott Walker about why he had no worries about inviting an airman and his family displaced by Hurricane Katrina to stay with him.
The colonel was talking about the base's "Adopt-a-Family" program, where families here have opened their homes to servicemembers affected by Hurricane Katrina.
During Katrina, Airman Basic Michael Mitchell, his wife, Gina, and their 15-month-old son, Michael Jr., sheltered "in place" at Dolan Hall at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. The base, near Gulfport, took a major hit from the Category 4 hurricane.
Keesler officials declared the base unsafe and ordered the family to evacuate. They carpooled with another Air Force family some 200 miles to this base outside Montgomery, Ala. Maxwell experienced rain and wind, but was spared the major damage closer to the coast.
Montgomery, in fact, houses many Katrina survivors, judging by the observed number of cars with Mississippi or Louisiana license plates.
And while dormitories might be acceptable for single airmen, NCOs and officers, it isn't for families.
To ease the crunch and because they wanted to help a fellow Air Force family, the Walkers - Scott, Laura, and their two children - volunteered to take in an evacuated family. So the Mitchells gave up an apartment outside a devastated base for a home that is listed as a historical property. The Walker home on base was built in 1936 and is surrounded by mature oak trees.
"We talk all the time about how the Air Force is a family, but you don't realize how much it really is until a disaster like this strikes," said Bethany Hixon, a relocation specialist with the base's family support center.
A total of 461 Air Force families - on base and off - volunteered to take in evacuees. Forty-two families - many with pets - took advantage of the offers.
The evacuees were not all just Air Force. Navy families and a DoD civilian family have also found a warm welcome at the base.
For those evacuees with school-age children, the families help get the kids enrolled in local schools. Airmen assigned to the base collected money to buy school supplies and school clothes for the children. The Air Force Aid Society chipped in, and the local community has donated diapers, baby food, as well as goods for older children and adults.
"There is an 'Airman's Closet' here on base and Gina and I went over to pick up a crib for Mikey," said Laura Walker. "It's been fun to have someone here to speak with."
Her husband, Scott, who normally flies F-16 fighters, is the vice commander of Air Force Doctrine Center headquartered here, which deals with all the service's doctrinal matters and works with the joint-service community as well. House visitor Mitchell, on the other hand, has two months left in a six-month tech school at Keesler studying to be an electronics tech.
A civilian reporter just couldn't believe the level of trust among airmen that allows someone to just invite someone in to live with them. "There is always a level of trust like this," Walker said. "Pilots trust men like Airman Mitchell with their lives. We fly aircraft he repairs every day. We trust that they do the job correctly."
Mitchell admitted to some trepidation about the move. "At Keesler, the sergeants were telling me I didn't want to go to Maxwell because it's full of officers, and it is," he said. "But I have to tell you, everyone has been very nice to us here."